international analysis and commentary

Beyond the alleged persecution of Christians in China, a mixed picture

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On September 18, 2016 the BBC reported on the difficulties of Chinese Christians to freely practice their faith. While the program presents Christianity as “booming” in China, Christians are also shown as victims of recurrent oppression and periodic crackdowns from Communist authorities. This narrative reappears month after month as it cycles through the global media. Is it true that China is a difficult country for Christians? There is a different viewpoint than the recurring discourse of persecution in the media. 

It is a fact that during the Maoist era (1949-1977), Chinese Christians – and followers of all other religions – were openly persecuted by the Communist state. However, since 1979, religious policy has evolved and churches can openly operate as long as they are legally registered with the state and accept supervision from government agencies. The post-1979 equilibrium is complex, and while a large number of Christian churches prefer not to be formally registered, they do work to secure ties to some of the agencies.

It is also true that Christian churches have increased in size and influence over the past several decades. Christianity attracts people from different walks of life, young and old, educated and non, as well as people from both rural and urban areas. Although Chinese Christians are estimated to number between 70 and 100 million, their population is now more stagnant than booming. The Communist Party has consequently adjusted its religious policy, notably by encouraging churches to engage in social service. Most of the time, state agencies actually turn a blind eye to Christian groups’ main activities. The groups must respect implicit rules, such as the supremacy of the Communist Party, and refrain from political involvement. In comparison with the state’s policy toward banned sectarian groups (Falun Gong, the Church of Almighty God, etc.), Christian churches enjoy a high level of autonomy. As this is the case, then why is the media discourse of persecution so continuous and unequivocal? 

There are three major actors who benefit from the repetition of this rhetoric: Chinese officials, Chinese Christians, and foreign powers.

In a time of rapid transformation, with significant social tensions and economic challenges, talk of persecution sounds reassuring to China’s conservative leaders. While Communist China is changing, Christians are positioned as being under state control and as being appeasing conservatives. Therefore, state reformers do not have a strong interest in contradicting or minimizing this story.

The story of persecution is also convenient for many Chinese Christians, both inside and outside their communities. Appearing as persecuted believers in the international community is a way to claim prestige and moral superiority, which often translates into financial support. The discourse is also a useful tool inside Christian circles themselves to push for more internal unity. As the conversion to Christianity slows down, tension doubt and competition among pastors and communities are increasing. In this context, persecution is an easy way to blame the state, a common enemy outside the community, to push for more mutual support among Christians.

Finally, persecution also pleases many foreign powers. In a context where China increasingly appears as a superpower, rivalries and conflicts between the US and China are on the rise. Thus, Western states are inclined to generously spread the discourse of Christian persecution in order to demonize the modern Chinese state and to discredit its respectability and capacity of inclusiveness.

Clearly, the convergence of such actors with an interest in this narrative explains why alternative approaches and analyses rarely appear within the broader media. In order to better understand why the story of persecution appears so plausible, we must also look at the Chinese socio-cultural context. There are two major patterns that are rarely mentioned but still impact perceptions of religious freedom in China.

The first cultural pattern that misleads the debate relies on governance, as each socio-political system relies on a specific mode of governance. In China, the state regulates people primarily through land rights – each citizen belongs to a specific district, and officially changing one’s residency costs a lot. But surprisingly, the flow of money is scarcely regulated. Chinese citizens enjoy far lower taxation than Europeans and benefit from a relatively high level of freedom in sharing or giving their money to whomever they want. While land and residency in the West are perceived as inalienable individual rights, and flow of money as something to be highly regulated, the situation in China is almost the opposite. The modern Chinese state builds on cultural heritage to govern and regulate the flow of wealth within the Chinese society through land rights while leaving Chinese citizens quite free to manage their own money. Churches are often under the leadership of “bosses”. Some of these have become so rich and internationally connected that they are able to circumvent most regulations. Therefore, when local officials  target religious buildings, one must  ask whether it is the faith or an un-regulated business being targeted.

The second cultural pattern that we must consider is the one found in the state-religion relationship. In the West, identity is built upon the cultural myth of belonging to the same Christian faith, but under many different governments and ruling regimes. European history is marked by a fragmentation of the political sphere between moving, conflicting and various kinds of states, but with unity found in the Christian (and Gregorian) Church. By contrast, the Chinese identity is built on the myth of an imperial unity, a single state evolving from dynasty to dynasty but remaining singular and eternal in its deep nature. In Chinese civilization, diversity has always been embodied within the religious sphere, characterized by a fragmentation of cults, practices, and religious actors. In China, unity has been mostly incarnated through the political sphere while diversity has been mostly secured through the religious sphere. This arrangement deeply impacts the notion of religious freedom. It gives the state a very central, stable and dominating role in relationships to religious expression, but also creates an unstable and dynamic religious sphere.

This cultural association of religious life with diversity could explain why Chinese Christian churches seem inclined toward division. Tensions among Chinese Christians might not be only because of the government’s Machiavellian agenda, but also because of deep cultural roots that shape religious life and its relation to the state.

In conclusion, when interpreting religion in China, many interests are at stake and cultural biases shape our perception of the situation. By  understanding the intertwining of multiple actors and the major cultural constraints, one can better analyze the political landscape and difficulties of Chinese Christians.